Privacy advocates love it. Law enforcement hates it. The Tor web browser is especially designed to provide web users with a a completely anonymised online experience - and it recently received a big new update. But what is Tor? Why do we need it? And is it actually worth using?
What Is The Tor Network?
Tor is an open, private network that is operated by volunteers. It relies on the Onion Service Protocol which hides user locations, encrypts data and provides a bunch of online services such as messaging, web publishing and other services.
Where it differs from a VPN, which can do some of those things is that a VPN depends on a very important commodity; trust. When you sign up with a VPN service you are trusting that one party to protect your data.
The Tor network is completely distributed so no single party can compromise your privacy. Because it's distributed it's much harder for anyone to access data and compromise the privacy or anonymity of an individual.
That said, there have been cases when law enforcement has been able to compromise individuals using Tor. But in those cases, they were tracked when they used open channels and broadcast IP addresses or other data that could be used.
How Do I Get On The Tor Network?
You start by downloading the Tor Browser. While it's possible to use Tor from any other browser, this is the easiest way to ensure you have all the correct settings in place.
Once installed, you can launch the browser and it automatically connects you to the Tor network. From there, it works just like any other browser.
Interestingly, the first site I browsed to popped up a warning from the Tor browser telling me an ad running on the page may be hiding a cross-side scripting vulnerability. I then had the option of blocking or allowing that request just once or permanently.
What's The Browsing Experience Like?
In general, using Tor is a little slower than using other browsers. I have to admit its been a long time since I last used the Tor browser and back then it was horrible. It was very slow and the browser did a terrible job of rendering pages.
But the most recent update to the Tor browser has been given a thorough once-over.
Pages render correctly and the user interface is clean and familiar. Streaming video was smooth over my connection and the default search engine is the anonymised search engine DuckDuckGo.
It is a little slower than Chrome or Safari on my MacBook Pro but not enough to seriously impact my browsing experience.